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Terms & Synonyms


Official WHO Definition

Other Definitions

* An Indicator can be defined as a parameter that can be used to track changes of the environmental and socio-economic conditions. Indicators provide a sound base for decision-makers to take a policy decision on current as well as potential future issues of local, national, regional and global concerns. They can be used to assess, monitor and forecast parameters of concerns towards achieving environmentally sound development.
  • Indicators are a measure or a statistical value expressed in a meaningful way that provides an indication of the condition or direction over time of performance of a defined process or achievement of a defined outcome. An indicator provides evidence that a certain condition exists or certain results have or have not been achieved. Indicators enable decision-makers to assess progress towards the achievement of intended outputs, objectives and outcomes. Indicators provide objective basis for monitoring progress and evaluating achievements of a give process, and are therefore an inherent part of monitoring and evaluation. (Based on UN-Water: Water Monitoring - Mapping Existing Global Systems & Initiatives (Aug 2006))/

Examples of indicators to assess water quality and availability:

  • Annual withdrawal of ground and surface water (cu.m./sector)
  • Ground water reserves (cu.m)
  • Water availability per capita (cu.m./capita)
  • Percentage of population with access to safe drinking water
  • Percentage of population with access to sanitation
  • Concentration of faecal coliform in freshwater (milligram per litre)
  • Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) in water bodies (milligram per litre)


Interpretations and Explanations

Indicators: uses and limitations

Indicators help to simplify complex information so that it is quantifiable, in order that information can be understood and communicated. They help to explain how things are changing over time; analysis of consistent time series indicators may suggest predictions of future performance. Indicators should be well defined and easily understood so that the information they are attempting to explain is implicit. Because ‘good’ indicators are easy to understand, they offer a tool for raising awareness about water issues that cuts across every social and political group. Developing ‘good’ indicators is not an easy task, however, and involves collection, collation and systematization of data.

The need for clarity and ease of understanding means that indicators often condense large volumes of data into brief overviews and reduce the complexities of the world into simple and unambiguous messages. The need for scientific validity, on the other hand, requires that indicators must simplify without distorting the underlying patterns or losing the vital connections and interdependencies that govern the real world. The data for indicator development is drawn from diverse sources. Now more than at anytime in the past researchers have the ability to access vast amounts of information in a “knowledge base” that spans the world1. Indicators are therefore important in helping to focus on the main issues and highlighting some significant trends. However, care needs to be taken when utilising the information provided because Indicators simplifying complex information do not provide the full picture.

Criteria for choosing and using UN-Water monitoring indicators

  • policy-relevance - address a key issues
  • responsiveness - change sufficiently quickly in response to varied input
  • analytical soundness- based on sound science
  • measurability - realistic in terms of current or forthcoming data availability
  • accessibility - usable by as many users as possible without modification
  • ease of interpretation - communicate essential information in a way that is unambiguous and easy to understand
  • cost effectiveness - limited costs in proportion to the value of information derived


WHO-Lexicon page (translations and examples)

See Also

  1. Background Paper on Water and Health for the COP workshop Bucharest, 2008/Monitoring and Reporting Progress
  2. Background Paper on Water and Health for the COP workshop Bucharest, 2008/Setting Targets on Water and Health and Establishing Surveillance Systems
  3. COHRE Monitoring Implementation of the Right to Water: A Framework for Developing Indicators
  4. Electricity Governance Toolkit
  5. Groundwater Resources Sustainability Indicators
  6. Key Performance Indicators of River Basin Organizations
  7. Paris Declaration/Indicators
  8. The Sustainable Difference: Energy and Environment to Achieve the MDGs
  9. Water Conflict and Cooperation/Indicators
  10. Water Monitoring/Key UN-Water indicators

External Resources


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